It is not unusual for an animated movie to feature animals as its lead characters. From “Bambi” to “Madagascar,” animators have for decades tapped into the inherent vulnerability of animals to tell stories which children can easily relate to.
By Noah Gittell
It is not unusual for an animated movie to feature animals as its lead characters. From “Bambi” to “Madagascar,” animators have for decades tapped into the inherent vulnerability of animals to tell stories which children can easily relate to. Few of them engage the viewer in a discussion about animals and their rights as much as the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise. The original film, which was a box-office success in 2010, used the evolving relationship of a clan of Vikings to their local, wild dragon population as a reflection of our society’s changing values towards animals. It also made for a ripping good adventure story that pleased children, adults, and animals alike, and the next installment does what all good sequels do: further explores its themes, raises the stakes, and fills out the emotional backstory of its protagonist.
When we last left the story back in 2010, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), our compassionate teen-age protagonist, had tamed one of the fiercest dragons in the land and subsequently convinced his clan of Vikings to end the long, destructive war between them. Checking in on the clan now, each member of Hiccup’s town now has their own personal dragon for a pet, and all is well. But Hiccup is emboldened by his success and wants to change the world. Like a new vegetarian, he thinks all he needs to do is explain how kind and gentle these animals are, and minds will quickly be changed. This theory gets tested when he crosses paths with Drago (Djimon Hounsou), an evil genius bent on world domination (Is there any other kind?) who is kidnapping dragons and brainwashing them into doing his bidding.
There are lots of allusions to current debates over animals; when one dragon falls under Drago’s spell and kills a human, one character notes that, “a good dragon under the control of a bad person can do bad things,” which reads as a defense of “dangerous breeds,” like pit bulls. This animal rights subtext is always present, but its emotional throughline is compelling in its own right. Especially effective is Hiccup’s reunion with his estranged mother (Cate Blanchett). He discovers her tending a dragon sanctuary deep in the wilderness and suddenly understands where his compassion comes from. It sets up a potential conflict for Hiccup, whose father wants him to take over as chief of the clan (from which his mother ran away), but the film resolves the conflict in an unexpectedly sweet way. The scene where the normally brutish father of Hiccup (voiced magnificently by Gerard Butler) is reunited with his wife is one of the film’s best.
Such scenes work so well because they reveal the tender heart beneath what is actually a very violent film, especially considering its genre. At its core, “How to Train Your Dragon 2” is an action-adventure story, and the film offers several long battle scenes that will please the young boys in the audience. Do not worry about blood or guts – the violence is, of course, sanitized for the kiddies – but there is plenty of injury and death (humans and dragons alike), and not just of minor characters either. The film’s reliance on violence as the foundation for its plot makes for an always-entertaining movie, even if it slightly undercuts its message of compassion.
But these are philosophical quibbles on which we should not dwell, especially when the film offers so many aesthetic pleasures. The animation is beautifully rendered; in particular, the sequences in which Hiccup flies his dragon through the clouds demand to be seen on the biggest screen possible. The film is nimbly directed by Dean DeBlois (whose only directorial credit outside this franchise is the underrated “Lilo and Stich”).
Despite a lengthy cast of characters (Jonah Hill, Craig Ferguson, and Kristen Wiig also pop up in supporting roles) and a wildly inventive, detailed world, the film stays grounded largely due to the emphasis on Hiccup’s hero’s journey. Rare is the hero who is praised for his compassion, but that’s what DeBlois and his brilliant team of animators manage to achieve here.
My Rating: See it in the Theater